HARTLEPOOL UNITED this evening play a game that could be pivotal in how their season shapes up.
Colin Cooper’s side are at Southend, the team directly above them in the League Two table, sitting in the seventh and final play-off spot.
Pools are six points behind Phil Brown’s side, who are a further four behind Burton in sixth.
Following their third win in five games at the weekend, when Pools beat Newport 3- 0, confidence is high around the Pools camp.
There’s still 14 games remaining after tonight’s trip to Roots Hall. Tonight’s game won’t decide where Pools finish, but it could go some way to determining their fate.
And Cooper isn’t fazed about his players pondering what might be.
“We are up to eighth and the players can talk all they want, but all we are doing is what we did in October again and putting ourselves among the pack,’’ he said. “The top seven are a little bit away because they have been more consistent.
“We can’t allow this momentum to drop off if we are to make a go of it. We are more than capable of giving anyone in this division a game, more than capable of matching anyone.
“But the consistency and winning games is the key. We were unbeaten in December, but drew a lot and it’s about getting wins. Win at all costs?
No. Win well. Defend your box at all costs and give your other players the chance to win it.
“You have not got to lose first and that’s what we aim to do. Don’t lose and then go and win it.’’ Pools ended 2013 on a high with positive performances at Chesterfield and Morecambe, but followed up that promise with back to back home defeats to peg them back again.
Now they have started another positive run - they have not conceded a goal in 284 minutes, since losing at Wimbledon on January 28 – Cooper added: “Look at the goals we conceded at Wimbledon and we all said it was a game we should be winning. Even the Scunthorpe game, we drew 0-0 and it was one we should have won.
“We are in there, giving ourselves a chance to be in the mix.
“A positive at Southend would be great, but there’s still plenty to play for.
“We can hang on in there, but it’s not about having a burst now and then dropping off. It’s about staying between now and for another month. Get to the end of March and you see what the season has left.’’ Pools set off yesterday for tonight’s game, and Cooper is wary of the physical and mental demands on his players after the exertions of beating Newport.
The professionalism of the players has been tested over a three-day period from Saturday to Tuesday and Cooper admitted: “We are six points off Southend, where we go next .
“They lost at the weekend from a winning position and it’s not easy to take, so they will be disappointed – our focus has to be rest, recover, eat, sleep and leave here on Monday on a five-hour journey and then a longish day on Tuesday before the game.
“We have to utilise as many minutes of that time as we can. It’s the hard ask - a tough game on Saturday, then Sunday and Monday are so important for Tuesday. It’s about doing the right things - professionalism if you like.
“Get our body recovered to do it again, and a bit more.’’ Michael Duckworth was on the bench at the weekend, a little over a month following hernia surgery.
The right-back has not played since January 1. Neil Austin is going to be out for at least another week with a bruised toe, while Jordan Richards has been solid in the last two outings.
“Michael has been out just over a month,’’ said Cooper.
“We spoke on Friday and he’s trained well. Early last week he was a bit anxious about it, but he’s got better as the week went on.
“We spoke and he could have trained with the youth team again over the weekend, but he was keen to be involved in the squad again and wanted to be part of it.
“Now we have to be careful he doesn’t lose any fitness as it’s a different week - travel Monday, play Tuesday, rest day Wednesday.
“We make sure we can keep him topped up incase he needs throwing in.’’